In 2008, in the midst of a self-proclaimed fiscal crisis, City Council voted to allow the (former) Community Development Department to obtain a new SUV.

This is symbolic, see? The Police and Fire departments have had to put off replacing vehicles and some equipment since then. The Police Department, in particular, is getting nickel-and-dimed on old patrol cars that should have been retired last year, and the year before, and the year before that. But Community Development got exactly what it wanted.

And, as each new downtown brick paver is tamped into place, it must seem like a slap in the face.

Misplaced Spending Priorities

DeKalb’s strengths lie in emergency and other basic services. Nobody does it better. This is bound to change soon, however, because we now have to pay for years of misplaced priorities I’ll call “goodies” and “monuments.” The “goodies” priority has been about putting all kinds of pay increases and bonuses and allowances and perks into our budgets during the good times, while starving fleet, equipment, building and pension funds. “Monuments” is about ongoing money-hole vanity projects (downtown, airport) that might be indulged during boom times but have proven disastrous to continue since the markets crashed — projects that will never generate anything near a fair return on investment.

Another factor hampering functionality is ethical corruption. Favoritism and cronyism have fed the misplaced priorities, bred a culture that is scornful and neglectful of its base constituency, and tolerated administrative incompetence to the detriment of the community.

The FY 2011 Picture

It is impossible to delve into the DeKalb’s draft FY 2011 budget for any length of time without holding one’s breath at all the many ways we could be completely, utterly screwed in the next year or two; and I mean completely, utterly screwed EVEN WITH the proposed layoffs/pay cuts and utility tax hikes.

The problem is, unless the cuts go much farther, DeKalb could find itself heading into a vicious cycle of debt not unlike the state’s except in scale. This year we are already having to pay out about $5.3 million to General Fund debt service, TIF debt service, loans from the Water and Airport divisions, and Capital Projects Fund debt. We’ve now added a $2.5 million revolving line of credit to help our cash flow, and it looks like we’re heading toward refinancing some debt for voluntary separation payouts. Then there are the what-ifs:

  • What if the State of Illinois — already tardy — cuts income tax payments to DeKalb? The projected revenues are $3.5 million from the state. Can we really count on all of it?

  • What if we have a catastrophic liability claim? We have no coverage for such a claim, yet it’s more likely if we cut public safety staffing and can’t keep up with maintenance.

  • What if we experience a couple of massive vehicle and equipment failures due to deferring emergency services’ replacement purchases for so long? There are almost $3 million worth of vehicles, equipment and building improvements on a 2011 wish list with no funding.

  • What if NIU lays off workers, ultimately to the further detriment of the property and sales tax revenues?

  • What if commodities prices rise precipitously, as we see gas prices doing now?
  • City administrative staff seem to have resigned themselves to operating at a deficit for the next five fiscal years. That would be fine if they were great at projecting revenues, but they’re not. (That’s not necessarily a slam; maybe no one is.) They also may not be great at holding off the above what-ifs (and others) just by crossing their fingers; and the result of just a little more bad luck could lead to massive borrowing to fund basic operations. Such a hole could take a generation to crawl out of.

    What City Council Should Do with This Budget

    My wish list starts with Council’s understanding that DeKalb’s EXTREMELY SERIOUS financial problems are not just due to the Great Recession but are also the result of years of accumulated distractions from the central mission of providing police, fire, water, streets and garbage. The point is, our elected officials need to make a determination about whether our appointed officials are capable of adapting to leaner government, new priorities and whatever other changes are required to get us out of this morass.

    Council also should assume, for the sake of safety, that both the revenue projections and the commodities projections are going to be off, and not in our favor. More cuts need to be made. If, say, road salt stays low and sales tax revenues rebound, that’s great! In that case, buy the catastrophic liability coverage and/or put the “extra” in the reserves — or buy a police car or two!

    Next, Council should meet at least weekly to talk about budget issues until the final vote is taken. This will present opportunities for hashing out, among other things, further ideas for cuts and for implementing EPI recommendations for reorganization starting with I&T.

    Here are a few suggestions for further cuts. Some would have to wait for consideration as contracts and the management pay plan come due for renewal, while others could be decided upon now. Note that several could be taken on as business deductions on individuals’ personal tax returns. (Where I’ve located the total expected expenditure, I’ve put it in parentheses.)

    –Eliminate car allowances ($17,530)

    –Eliminate clothing allowances ($131,600)

    –Eliminate longevity bonuses ($158,350)

    –Eliminate in-town lunch reimbursements

    –Stop paying for water and cooler rentals

    –Cut dues and subscriptions for individuals ($40,279)

    –Cut personnel recruitment budget until the hiring freeze is over ($11,000)

    –Cut marketing and advertising budget ($56,000)

    –Cut forestry budget ($32,000)

    –Defer some capital improvements at the airport

    –Defer some I&T projects

    If Council is not inclined to consider such cuts at this time, the question is: when, then? How dire does the situation have to become?